A group of New York forest rangers practiced rolling into personal shelters Friday before they left to tackle wildfires in Big Sur, Calif.
The 21 people from across the state are expected to fight fires in Los Padres National Forest for the next two weeks.
Thin aluminum-coated tarps — rangers practiced with a plastic version because the real ones are expensive and not reusable — could be the only thing between their bodies and raging flames in a worst-case scenario.
That’s why it was important to get inside the shelters quickly, press them down to the ground to create a seal and remember that no matter how hot it gets in the shelter, it’s a lot hotter outside, squad boss Rob Praczkajlo reminded the group, many of whom have been on firefighting missions before.
The forest ranger from Jay also instructed them to breathe into the ground while inside the shelter.
“You can stand a lot of burn on your skin. You can’t stand any burn in your airway.”
The training took place at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s staging area on Route 50 in Saratoga Springs.
It’ll be Josh Borst’s first time fighting fires with the group. The 29-year-old Schoharie man works in DEC’s Stamford office in Delaware County.
“I get to work with a bunch of good guys and hear the stories of being on the line,” Borst said.
Dan Gaidasz is heading to a fire out of state for the third time.
“This is a good crew because a lot of these guys have gone out before,” said Gaidasz, 33, of Sloansville. He went on one of the two trips to fight wildfires at Hell’s Canyon in Oregon last summer.
The DEC probably will send another crew after this one returns, said Jay McDaniel, a forest ranger from Sherburne.
With 14 trips under his belt, McDaniel is a veteran, although he’s never been to California. “I’ve been going out since about 1985. I can run around with these guys here,” the 54-year-old ranger said of the younger men in his group.
“We call him ‘Dad,’ ” Gaidasz joked.
The rangers’ light mood on Friday belied the danger and hard work that lies ahead. The crew will work 12- to 16-hour days before hiking out each night to their camp.
And Big Sur isn’t flat.
“We’re gearing up for the extreme hiking,” Gaidasz said. “There’s a lot of opportunities for injuries.”
He’s heard of men who had to stop early because they got terrible blisters. “I’ve heard stories where people could not work anymore because their feet were just completely done,” Gaidasz said.
The group of 21 includes five leaders, three of whom supervise squads of five or six men, said DEC spokesman Col. Andrew Jacob.
Three members of each squad have to be experienced in fighting fires in the West, while one has to be qualified to operate a chain saw, Jacob said.
The rangers met another group in Connecticut on Friday and flew out to California on a charter plane.
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